Friday 14 June 2024

Three Body Problem review: the politics of novel, Netflix and Tencent

Three Body Problem review by Anna Chen, Netflix, Tencent

Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu: Netflix and Tencent TV series adaptations

Reviewed by Anna Chen, First published 6 May 2024

8-part Netflix 3 Body Problem

30-part Tencent Three-Body


Book One of Remembrance of Earth’s Past

How did the Three Body Problem work as a book, a Netflix series and a Chinese Tencent series? That’s a Three Body Problem in itself.

There once was a time when any American or British playwright or scriptwriter would have taken the concept of Cixin Liu’s stupendously successful Chinese science fiction trilogy, Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and run with it. Adapting other people’s histories to your own world experience with insights and dramatic skill has been our strong point ever since Chaucer read Virgil and Shakespeare refracted Holinshed.

Genius always stands on the shoulders of giants. Netflix’s eight-part series 3 Body Problem had the opportunity to dramatise Book One of the Hugo Award-winning blockbuster series and illuminate it through a western lens. But, instead, they turned it into a banal addition to the multiple-body of China-hate currently pervading every nook and cranny of the culture like a cancer.

Yes, we geddit. China bad, West good. Hulk smash.

It’s as if Western intelligentsia drove their egghead brains into the buffers of late-capitalism when its contradictions bit them on the bum. The resulting cultural entropy and breakdown misses chances for enlightenment and insight: as illustrated in the new Netflix series.

As I’m fond of reminding everyone, the cultural superstructure collapses into the economic base. Sadly, even Netflix, with all its resources, can’t break out of this gravitational nosedive and avoid being pulled into the black hole of US-led geopolitics. This isn’t helped by the author’s own inner Ye Wenjie pressing that big red button and replying to the siren call from afar.

Overall, the eight-episode 3 Body Problem is strong on pacing but glosses over the science and philosophical ideas that drive the novel. Sacrificing content for spectacle and action loses much of what makes the book interesting. The 30-episode Tencent Three-Body series made for Chinese audiences is truer to the book and its ideas, but it suffers from longeurs and repetition. A stronger edit could lose it a few episodes and prove that sometimes less is more. Both have strong production values reflecting how much was spent on these two mega-projects.

The Cultural Revolution

Three Body Problem, Book One of the trilogy, kicks off with the traumatising events of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, a reverse-mirror event of our own swinging sixties which took place in an expanding post-war economy. Lucky us.

China had no such luxury. It faced an assortment of obstacles across more than a century of hardship including the decaying Qing dynasty, opium wars, ridding itself of colonial rule (yes, I’m looking at you, Britain), the birth of the republic, civil war, war lords, sadistic Japanese occupation, revolution, a vicious Korean war, famine, embargoes used to starve the fledgling state into submission, and a war against itself in the tragedy of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

The chief antagonist who gets the story rolling is astrophysicist-to-be, Ye Wenjie. She is only a teenager when, to chants of “Root out the bugs,” she sees her physicist father publicly denounced as a counter-revolutionary intellectual and beaten to death by the young Red Guards who’ve been entrusted with preserving the purity of the revolution.

Betrayal looms large as her own younger sister is one of the patricidal ideologues on the stage, who are full of passionate intensity but too immature for wisdom. Her terrified mother also piles in with accusations. Later, a journalist who Wenjie trusts saves his own skin by stitching her up as the author of a tract he has himself written about the western ecological book, The Silent Spring. You can’t trust those feckless intellectuals.

The aliens are greener on the Other side

Wenjie’s world is relentlessly hostile and it takes its toll on her. More sinned against than sinning, at least in the beginning, she will end up committing the biggest betrayal of her own kind, less as revenge, more trying to help out what she sees as her ruined planet and her own species who are responsible. It is The Silent Spring that, in a tortured logical fallacy, finally sparks her motivation for doing the awful deed that dooms humanity.

“It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race.”

Having chosen lifetime incarceration at the top secret Red Coast Base run by the People’s Liberation Army, which transmits communications via a monster nature-destroying satellite dish in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, the damaged Wenjie has access to the outside force she believes can awaken humanity.

Which, given the clues including an alien message warning, “Do not reply,” is a helluva gamble.

Three Body Problem novel by Cixin Liu

Dark mirror

The first book in Liu’s trilogy uses the Cultural Revolution as the initial setting, and its harrowing events as motivation, for Ye’s action. Liu himself has some dim childhood memories of catastrophes occurring as the chaotic young communist nation struggled to stabilise and reconstruct itself. Everyone loves a winner. His critique of China’s politics and besottedness with the West is hard to miss. Giving aid and comfort to an opposing system that could destroy your kind lies at the core of his villain, so you could read Wenjie as a dark mirror version of the author.
Netflix’s 3 Body Problem seizes on the Cultural Revolution opening and foregrounds it into a simplistic device colouring the whole narrative, essentially ascribing a moral paralysis to China that makes it responsible for world destruction. It’s an unpleasant seed to plant in the current climate of war fever while, of course, absolving the West from any culpability after nearly two centuries of pumping out pollution since the Industrial Revolution and numerous wars.

The Tencent version runs in the other direction and only reveals the book’s opening scene fully somewhere around Episode 24, focusing instead on the science and philosophy within in a detective mystery.

First serialised in a Chinese-language science fiction magazine in 2006 and then published as a novel in 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics, the events of Three Body Problem are framed by the pendulum swing from the chaos of the revolutionaries’ tragic attempt to prevent a recidivism back to the destructive system they’ve just overthrown, to the new era of wealth and stability.

Yellow Peril tropes for the 21st century

Fifty years after the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese can take stock and enjoy the new normal: the eradication of absolute poverty, the growth of the biggest middle-class on the planet and the emergence of, whisper it, a new bourgeoisie. But humanity is about to learn of of the existential threat lying four light years away in the Centauri star group, set in motion by Ye Wenjie in 1979.

This is where the Netflix series gets ideologically stuck and hollows out. While the book and Tencent’s Three-Body series explore the whys and wherefores of chaos and stability in a modern setting, Netflix acknowledges no such contrast for Chinese society. We are shown Chinese only as cyphers unless they are here and thoroughly westernised; always at work, never at play. They are spotted in flashbacks to the bad old days, never in their homes with family or in bars, or restaurants as in the Tencent. In short, the Chinese are dehumanised.

The inference drawn is that the Cultural Revolution opening is a static backdrop to a failed China which is, under the glittering surface, dark-age mysterious, sinister and no good for its inhabitants. Especially when the China scenes are all shot with the same grey misery filter the BBC reserves for communism while safe old Ingerland is filmed in full colour.

As one viewer succinctly put it on Twitter/X, “The Netflix series makes the Cultural Revolution into an eternal symbol of Chinese Evil which is contrasted with Western Good.”

BOOK ONE and TENCENT – Three-Body

In the book, you can read a serious attempt to make sense of what goes wrong, what goes right and why. All within a largo-paced SF story about Trisolaran aliens, human beings grown mad with grief and the big logical fallacy that sets the story in motion.

Tencent’s Three-Body series, which follows the book closely, provides a glimpse of the Chinese people looking at themselves as the protagonist of the story, the driver of their own destiny, while pursuing philosophical enquiry as well as a detective-thriller investigation.

After the opening Red Coast Base scene, we cut to the present, 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics. Back then, China was riding high, about to debut on the world stage as the benign rising superpower that could put on a stunning show demonstrating how far they’d progressed from just making our cheap tat in suicide factories.

This was the start of a Golden Age when the Chinese were looking forward to spending their hour in the sun and sitting at the Top Table, previously the domain of the western developed nations. China was about to save the global economy from America’s Great Financial Crash and prove itself to be the good guy in the new era of stability. What could possibly go wrong?

The detective quest

Equilibrium is upset by the suicides of top scientists who were connected to the mysterious Frontiers of Science cult. Our hero and protagonist, nanotech engineer Professor Wang Miao, is enlisted by the authorities to help the investigation. He learns that the dead scientists include Dr Ye Wenjie’s daughter, the lovely string theorist Yang Dong, on whom he has a crush, making his involvement personal and applied, not just theoretical.

Wang is goaded by a gruff, earthy police detective and former soldier, Da Shi Qiang, who, after initial antagonism meeting cute, will become his sidekick.

“I’m not a good cop,” he tells Wang, annoying his colleagues and establishing himself as a disobedient, wilful anti-hero — quite risque in Chinese society which is emerging from a tradition of disdaining individualism. The series’ honourable attempt at Hollywood-style character construction harks back to a grinning Errol Flynn swashing his buckles, and is done with mixed results: sometimes sweetly buddy-buddy, at other times clunky and toe-curling.

Major-General Chang Weisi of the PLA asks Wang to take up Japanese physicist Shen Yufei’s invitation to join the Frontiers of Science group in order to infiltrate the organisation, which he’d previously rejected as far too theoretical in their exploration of the limits of science. Wang’s applied research is aimed at getting things made, specifically, nano-fibres that can cut through anything.

Wang agrees to join, telling Da Shi: “A person’s ability to discern the truth is directly proportional to his knowledge.”

This, of course, idealistically assumes one’s objective is to find the truth, the raison d’etre supposedly lying at the heart of 400 years of fact and science-based Age of Enlightenment which may well be coming to an end in the West (See Netflix’s wasted story opportunities).

Peace origin of Three Body Problem

Televised in 2023, with the benefit of hindsight and the foresight dread of Things To Come, Tencent’s Wang probes Chang about his war anxiety and points out that there are no hot-spots in the world as this is “probably the most peaceful period in history.” And, indeed, it was peaceful when the book was published in 2008. And even when Ken Liu’s English translation was published in 2014, there’s a feeling of, phew! Thank goodness we’re living in this part of history. However, by the time of TV production, the fictional fear is bleeding into reality.

In both The Three Body Problem book and Three-Body, Chang tells Wang he’s lucky if he’s never known a complete change, a crisis. A comment that becomes loaded with irony as the series was made over the period of deteriorating relations with the USA superpower.

“The entire history of humankind has been fortunate. From the Stone Age until now, no real crisis has occurred. But if it’s all luck, it has to end one day. Let me tell you: it’s ended. Prepare for the worst.” This sounds like the Tencent series preparing Chinese viewers for a major calamity and reversal of fortune.

And so life imitates art. Or perhaps the art sensed what was in the wind and provided a cathartic outlet in a science fiction metaphor for an underlying collective dread of an enraged imperialism.

It’s painful to hear the same words from the 2008 book uttered with a new meaning in 2023 that’s like a death plunge into an abyss. At this point metaphor and real life collide. Something even worse than the Opium Wars, World War 2 and Japanese fascism slouches its way here.

Story dynamics — what works and what doesn’t

You can see why audiences prefer the Chinese Tencent version. The first two episodes are gripping, serving up a rich, complex stew, explaining physics and particle accelerators with the aid of a drunken pool table demonstration. Street hallucinations and a rich, imaginative palette of visuals from the smallest quantum sub-atomic particles to the biggest cosmic vista are vividly delivered.

Viewers aren’t talked down to but are assumed to have enough of a grasp of basic scientific principles to find credible the science in the world of the story. The Shooter hypothesis is simply explained and illustrated, as are the turkey scientists of the Farmer hypothesis, a most entertaining series high point. They’re fed regularly and looked after … until the day they aren’t. But they’re not to know that until it’s too late, poor delicious turkeys.

But the visual medium of film and TV has different demands to the speed of a book if you’re sticking to it literally and literarily. By episodes four or five, narrative drive threatens to grind to a halt, suffering from stasis and repetition. One influence seems to be the mesmerising German hit series, Dark, sharing with it a hypnotically atmospheric sound design, but with many of the narrative-pacing flaws that sometimes made watching it feel like wading through wet cement.

Long pauses have to earn their screen time and deliver meaning through skilful set-up and story momentum, not left as vacuums hoping to be filled by profundity: it is a Zen emptiness we crave.

The animated turkey scientist story is a delight but one which loses its power with each telling — and it was retold frequently with little variation. Adding drag, a whole ten minutes is spent explaining why the sun is a super-antenna.

Three-Body Tencent series - turkey scientist

San-Ti’s little helper

Nostalgic and grateful for the leg-up out of its century-of-humiliation doldrums, the book leans into adoration of the West and its science figures such as Aristotle, Isaac Newton, Copernicus, and one Chinese philosopher Mozi, as if China did little up to modern times. But if Chinese astronomers hadn’t been active, we’d never have known about the RCW 86 “Guest Star” supernova in 185AD, or the supernova that created the Crab Nebula in 1054, also seen by a monk in Flanders as a “bright disc”.

Not having a time machine, Liu couldn’t foresee China’s vast clean-up and the effect its green tech would have on the world, as he was writing at a time when Beijing was bathed in smog all year around from manufacturing affordable goods for western consumers. The Silent Spring book to which Liu defers through his chief antagonist, Wenjie, has long been eclipsed by events as genius takes a giant step for mankind onto the shoulders of giants.

It’s not until Episode 18 of the Tencent that the core Trisolar story gets going, reaching the book’s beginning. In Episode 24 we finally see in flashback the full inciting incident as shown incompletely in the first episode.

It’s worth hanging in there as the story deepens and picks up when it is revealed that the misanthropic oil billionaire and Adventist Mike Evans is helping the Trisolaran San-Ti invade Earth because he is a species egalitarian who sees humanity as sinful. And of what importance is the human species in the vastness of the universe? A fossil-fuel oligarch’s son who transfers his hatred for his eco-destructive father onto the human race, he devotes his love and obedience to the off-planet daddy figure, the distant voice of the San-Ti he calls “Lord”.

Along with Redemptionist Ye Wenjie who wants to work with the San-Ti to solve their Three Body problem, these two narcissists decide the fate of the world due to an inability to come to terms with the hurt done to them. (I see parallels with war-mongers and whoever released the Covid virus.)

Their betrayal backfires when the Lord realises how treacherous and duplicitous humanity is, being capable of saying the opposite of the truth even if it’s a fictional fairy story. The San-Ti see humanity as an existential threat and resolve to destroy it when the fleet arrives in 450 years, clobbering their science first. Sounds familiar? Just as Wenjie could not foresee the San-Ti’s deadly turn, neither could the author see his idealised American system doing the same and turning on his kind.

3 Body Problem Netflix series - virtual reality Trisolaris

NETFLIX — 3 Body Problem (March 2024)

Half an hour in to Netflix’s eight-part 3 Body Problem, the godless, heathen Chinee hate old things. There’s little sense of history or science. Only the West has a sense of God. To get a snog, give a girl a book about pesticides. Foregrounding the Cultural Revolution horror up front as a five-minute pre-credit sequence without paying it off with society’s contrasting progress, establishes it as China’s underlying mindset in the present; a misery mise en scene only relieved by an English language book and western values, of course.

Unlike the book, it denies China’s emergence from the period, repairing & reconstructing itself, and catching up with the West. It reinforces China as Other with a single positive male ethnically Chinese character, detective Officer Clarence “Da” Shi, who works for the British Strategic Intelligence Agency (MI6), a reassuring presence played solidly by Benedict Wong.

After establishing Cultural Revolution horror without the nuances of the book or Tencent series, 3 Body Problem transfers to the safe familiarity of the West and a murder mystery. We know who dunnit — the victims themselves — but we don’t know why.

3 Body Problem Netflix series - Red Coast Base

The Oxford Five

The present-day story starts with its wheels rolling, with Clarence/Da Shi arriving in the present at the scene of a grisly death of a scientist where sequential numbers, possibly a countdown, are scrawled in blood on the walls.

A second scientist, Vera Ye (Yang Dong in the Tencent series, daughter of Ye Wenjie), commits suicide at the Oxford University Particle Accelerator after the project is shut down, and leaves her colleague and friend, Saul, to investigate why the physics is wrong, “science is broken” and whether God exists.

Two of Saul’s scientist buddies, Auggie Salazar and Jin Cheng, function as Three-Body‘s Professor Wang split across two characters. (Jin is the only other positive Asian apart from Clarence/Da Shi.) They are all members of Vera’s Scooby-gang group-protagonist of university friends; dubbed the “Oxford Five,” it includes Jack the snacks business mogul and Will, Jin’s cancer-ridden ex-boyfriend.

Like Professor Wang, Auggie is a nanotechnologist. They both begin to hallucinate numbers in a countdown sequence. Wang spends ages identifying his mysterious numbers appearing in the photos he takes and in his wider vision. Auggie learns what the big lightshow numbers filling her vision mean within the first thirty minutes as events are economically collapsed into one scene: sinister Adventist Tatiana demands she close her nanotech company or else, and says the sky will wink at her as proof. It does.

After demonstrating that her nano-fibres can cut through diamond, Auggie orders her company to shut down its development with seconds to go before the countdown reaches zero.

Three Body Problem in virtual reality

Both series pursue the mystery of the dead scientists and the cults who hold the key. Both enter the Trisolaran realm via the Three Body Problem virtual reality game: Netflix via a headset, and Tencent through two full-body suits and helmets, the suits being the more believable experience. However, the gorgeous, shiny, metallic Netflix helmet does look more alien and its Trisolaran virtual world is funnier, inhabited by Earth science legends played by popular British comics. The game sequences are little filmlets in themselves.

The VR game within the detective mystery requires the players of both series — Wang and Da Shi, and Jin Cheng and Jack — to solve the problem of the three “flying star” solar bodies: the triple suns’ orbits can have no focus point, making it impossible to predict periods of chaos and stability. Accurate predictions allow the population to either dehydrate and survive the roasting sun and big freeze, or hydrate and continue to develop their civilisation to higher levels of the game until they can conquer space travel.

Wang tries to unravel the science while Jin’s role in the Netflix version is to mark out western scientific superiority over the Count of the West’s Asiatic mysticism. Again with the subliminal defining Chinese culture as primitive Other. They should have had a Galileo character trying to persuade the Church of the superiority of science.

The BBC misery filter

One thing Netflix 3 Body Problem does effectively is the fate of Mike Evans’s ship the Judgement Day, a wandering community of his Adventist followers. However, the success of this climactic scene is despite the disturbing addition of children on board — not in The Three Body Problem — whose only purpose seems to be to ratchet up emotional involvement. Dead children, even pretend ones, is not something most of us wish to be seeing right now.

Both versions had me squirming but it was Netflix that dialled up the tension to eleven and had me watching through clenched fingers.

For some unearthly reason, in episode 7, Netflix sends Wenjie untried and unpunished from England back to where it all started at the Red Coast Base for her final fate (ambiguous in the book, but certainly not by anyone else’s hand). It’s in China so it’s still relentlessly bleak and shot through that hazy grey BBC filter even in the present. This was a chance to show China’s current contrasting state of stability and development but it only follows her to the graveyard decay of the old SETI project.

One viewer said dryly on Twitter, “If Dr Ye had been shown landing at Beijing Daxing Airport then travelling via High Speed Rail through Futuristic Chinese Cities, Three Body Problem viewers may have thought the San Ti had arrived early & started fixing human problems.”

3 Body Problem Netflix series - virtual reality game

Sophon supercomputers

The Tencent series ends Book 1 bleakly but on an optimistic note. Aided by pacifist Trisolarans in the VR game, Wang and Ding discover how the invasion will happen.

The Trisolarans have been targeting Earth’s technology on the quantum level with advanced protons in order to contain and keep us primitive — shades of US objectives to contain China. With every destruction of an unfolding proton, raised from one to eleven dimensions, entire universes can be destroyed. Raised to 2 dimensions it is big enough to wrap around Trisolaris and create Wisdom One (Sophon One in the book), a supercomputer beyond mere AI.

At this juncture in the book, there’s a ton of science exposition that requires reading several times and I congratulate Three-Body for paring it down as well as they did. I can, however, picture the triumphant script-writing meeting at Netflix after bringing in their their economic explanation at under two minutes, manuscripts and champagne corks flying through the air and producers yelling, “Eff it! Science, schmience! We’ll just have terminally cancer-ridden Will’s brain shot into space to save us!”

Back to Three-Body: once Wisdom/Sophon Two, Three and Four are built, the first two are launched towards Earth at the speed of light where they will hide in the particle accelerators and deliberately give out wrong results and create false miracles like blinking stars. Wisdom Three and Four act as receivers allowing monitoring of humans in real time while the invading Trisolaran Interstellar Fleet is in transit, expected to arrive at Earth in 450 years.

And so to the end …

Wang and Ding (Yang Dong’s widower) despair drunkenly over humankind’s imminent extinction four and a half centuries hence. A terminally cancer-ridden Da Shi cheers them up with a rousing speech in a field of locusts comparing their resilience to that of bugs that survived the worst that humans have thrown at them. Individuals may die but humanity will survive. In the face of species obliteration this is about as much optimism as can be mustered under the circumstances.

Netflix Clarence takes depressed Saul and Jin to a field of cicadas where he gives a similar speech but uses cicadas for his metaphor which makes less sense as we all like cicadas, rather than locusts which no-body does and have indeed survived age-old attempts to wipe them out.

Tencent’s Ye Wenjie ends the book on a literal cliffhanger when granted a visit to the Red Coast Base camp to see her last sunset before her life sentence for crimes against humanity begins — all shot affectingly without BBC grey haze. You see, it can be done.

Like all the women in the Tencent Three-Body series, even the aging Wenjie is exquisitely beautiful, as if Chinese society is terrified of its anima being perceived as ugly or even slightly imperfect. This fear of being seen in all its variety hints at a lack of confidence, pressure to conform to rigid standards of beauty instead of letting rip with women from across their fabulous range. Women are not pioneering leaders outside pure science. They echo western stereotypes of man-pleasing lotus blossoms or mysterious dragon-lady villains. Chinese men are not similarly constrained in Three-Body as they are in the Netflix.

“You are bugs”

In the absence of Chinese males in Netflix 3 Body Problem, Clarence/Da Shi does a lot of heavy lifting but he works for the “good guys” so is allowed a rounded character. Other Chinese men, mostly seen in flashback, are rendered mysterious.

One might suspect that the only good Chinese is one working for the Western state: for the remnants of an empire currently trying to revive the worst aspects of itself and itching to wreak havoc in the spirit of Winston Churchill.

So when the San-Ti tell us Earthlings, “You are bugs” on tech screens throughout the world in different languages, I thought of Winston Churchill and what he had to say about “Red Indians,” native Australians and Palestinians.

At the Palestine Commission in 1937, Churchill said of Palestinians: ” ‘I do not admit that the dog in the manger has the final right to the manger, even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit, for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to those people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race, or, at any rate, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.’

He might as well have cut to the chase and said, “You are bugs”.

The very first words of Episode 1 are “Root out the bugs,” equating the Communist Party of China with the murderous species from Trisolaris. A crude transference of the crimes of Western imperialism onto the patsy as the Viking raiding party seeks a casus belli and gears up for war in Asia.

We are witnessing in a great crossover the anguish of the European group that has brutally dominated the world for centuries and fears that they are about to end up on the receiving end of what they dished out: as the dinner, not the diner. Of course, this is pure projection of a guilty conscience but try telling them that.

A WASTED OPPORTUNITY: Possible story directions

We now arrive at the direction the Netflix series could have taken had it been motivated by artistic excellence commenting on the world we now find ourselves in instead of plugging into the US geopolitical agenda.

It is possible for American culture to critique its own system. We’ve seen this vividly since Grapes of Wrath, The Jungle, All The President’s Men, JFK and Apocalypse Now to Westworld, Fallout and many others. Netflix 3 Body goes retrograde and reinvigorates a reactionary mythologising of itself as world saviour and policeman rarely seen since the height of the Cold War.

The contrast between chaos and stability and their causes is what the Three Body Problem story is largely about. Netflix writers would have demonstrated an advanced skillset if, in transposing it to the West, they’d looked at the era of chaos we’re entering. China is emerging from a dark place and heading towards the light, while we’ve abandoned the science and fact-based Age of Enlightenment and find ourselves burrowing deeper into a dark age.

Character assassination, poison, demonisation, dehumanisation and repetition of the Big Lie until it is accepted as Truth are our stock-in-trade along with military hardware and survival of the strongest. They could have taken a long, hard look at themselves and where we are if they’d examined that instead of delusional grandstanding as a 21st century John Wayne. More like a lung-wrecked Marlboro Man.

They might have transposed the story to the west, juxtaposing the outgoing balance of the post-war liberal order (for us, that is) with the rapidly descending chaotic era characterised by wars, social meltdown, abandonment of law and principles and lashings of speaking with forked tongue. An enlightened playwright might have seized the opportunity to flag up the reverse happening in the West in late stage capitalism as we are dragged from Stability to Chaos.

We even have our own real life bodies for which the three suns of the Trisolar system are the perfect metaphor: the USA, Europe and China; the actual Three Body Problem tipping us from a long period of post-war liberal order dominance into a multipolar rebalance.

This is likely to be a long and painful birth.

Our own Three Body Problem

Kindly allow me to finish by running with my astro-political metaphor.

As the US, the great star of the geopolitical firmament, declines and recedes, it disrupts the cosmic equilibrium of the post-war liberal order in the West. (Not so much equilibrium for the colonialised regions, unfortunately.) The US enters its supernova phase.

During the final period of stability, China saves the global economy from the declining America’s Great Financial Crash of 2008, releasing the big star’s last burst of energy which it proceeds to burn up at speed in a last ditch attempt to maintain its brilliance.

Meanwhile, Europe is drawing towards China under its huge gravitational pull of 1.4b human beings, vast productive economies of scale and rapidly advancing technology.

Lighter elements in the US whose outgoing energy counters the star’s own gravity, begin to burn out and fuse to create heavier elements. These deep state elements need to either drag Europe back or nix it all together.

They resort to all sorts of dirty tricks to promote Brexit, taking a huge chunk out of Europe as the UK jumps out of the Europe frying pan and into the US fire, adding its small mass to America. The additional gravitational attraction is just enough to pull Europe from its natural flow towards China and jerk it back towards the US, where the American red sun expansion fries parts of it to a crisp.

Burning through the last of its hydrogen and helium, the oversized star rapidly fuses into heavier and heavier elements — as Brexit shock leads to Trump leads to Biden in ever deteriorating states until its outgoing energy can no longer counter its own gravity.

It falls in on itself and bounces back off the tiny metallic core in a cosmic supernova, collapsing and exploding at the same time. Nothing is left except a tiny dwarf remnant of social breakdown, civil war, debt, hate and death spinning in the black depths of space.

Now, this is the plot we actually find ourselves in. I wonder if Cixin Liu ever stands at the lip of his Red Coast Base clifftop, staring into the setting sun, and asks if the sunset for humanity isn’t already here.

Anna Chen

Kicking the tyres of the culture: arts reviews and cultural critique by Anna Chen

Three-Body on Viki: all 30 episodes with subtitles

Three-Body on Prime: to buy

3 Body Problem: all 8 episodes on Netflix

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